“I am probably attracted to rugby because it is a man’s game.” So the Sun reported “the shock conversion” this month of Jimmy Greaves from football to rugby. “Football has been part of my life... but I no longer regard it as a passion,” Jimmy confided in the paper’s news section, writing of his admiration for “the fighting sprit, which is missing in football”. This has been a common theme. As it did with the last Rugby World Cup in Australia, the oval‑ball code’s four‑yearly hijacking of front and back pages provoked a particularly vehement reaction against any and all things associated with football.
There is no real reason why this should be the case; nothing beyond the fact that the British press finds it impossible to praise rugby without simultaneously deriding football. The thinking goes like this: rugby is not only polite, dignified and honourable, it is also manly and tough; by the same token, football must therefore be ill-mannered, graceless and cowardly. Even non-sport person Jeremy Clarkson managed to get a handle on it, using his Sunday Times column to contrast rugby with “the homosexual nonsense we see in football”. “Flick someone’s earlobe in a game of football and some jumped-up little gnome, sweating like a rapist, will mince over and order you off the pitch,” Clarkson frothed, bizarrely.
The Mail on Sunday’s Patrick Collins provided a more erudite exposition of the Clarkson thesis in a column devoted ostensibly to praising the conduct of the Rugby World Cup. In the process he also dismissed footballers as “diving, acting, bickering and bawling abuse”, part of a game run by “mendacious agents, avaricious managers and unprincipled chairmen”, and played by men who are “ludicrously overpaid, systematically underachieving and perversely pleased with their own inadequacies”. All of this may well be true. But it’s also an extraordinary amount of bile to unleash in the course of gently praising another sport.
You suspect something else is going on here – and Jimmy’s lament holds the key as to exactly what. “I wish now that I had played rugby but there was never the opportunity,” he mused sadly, describing how he likes to walk around his village discussing the rugby with his neighbours. The village, you see. And who lives in nice villages where people talk about rugby? Not football types, but people like Jimmy, who has finally become a rugby kind of man where once the opportunity was denied.
This is old stuff. More than 130 years since the separation of the codes, class and class assumptions are still inexorably attached to both sports. This often manifests itself as little more than lazy thinking and gurglingly incoherent prejudice. Cue Michael Henderson of the Daily Telegraph, who produced the weightiest rugby-as-stick-to-beat-football piece of the month: “Football will always be the most popular of games because it is the easiest to understand. Yet, in the past month, the rugby players and supporters of the world have (again) convincingly won the argument for decency and comradeship.” Henderson then fumbled for the suitably class-based analogy, “footballers are fit only to serve capons and pour mead at rugby’s banquet”. His conclusion was bellicose: “One look at the people who represent our national sides is enough to form a judgement of character. More than one look, and it becomes embarrassing. Call it the ale-house test: with whom would you rather enjoy a pint?” You suspect the feeling might be mutual.
From WSC 250 December 2007